GORHAM—The South Portland boys’ soccer team’s best season in a generation came to a sudden and disappointing end Thursday night.

The Red Riots surrendered a pair of first half goals and despite a penalty kick score late in the second half, couldn’t complete a rally and lost, 2-1, at Gorham in a Western Class A quarterfinal.

South Portland never got comfortable on the offensive end, couldn’t match the Rams’ speed and creativity and saw its best campaign since 1988 end at 10-4-1.

“We had a great year,” said Red Riots coach Bryan Hoy. “We played a tough club tonight. Gorham’s a heck of a team. They have good players left and right. They have speed and good skill. It was a tough draw in the first round. To win 10 games and to have to come to Gorham and play one of the better teams in the league, that’s tough.”

Memorable campaign

A year ago, South Portland made it to the quarterfinals, rallying from a 2-0 deficit against Kennebunk to win a playoff game for the first time in nine years as it wound up 9-6-1. This fall, the Red Riots won their first two matches, four of their first five and nine of 11. They lost to powerhouses Scarborough and Portland, along with Marshwood, and settled for a 2-2 tie at Gorham on Oct. 12 (failing to hold an early 2-0 advantage).

“Ten wins is a great year,” said Hoy. “We took care of business most of the year. We should have closed out Marshwood and Gorham, but other than that, we only lost to Scarborough and Portland, the two best teams.”

Wednesday evening, the complexion of the regional field changed dramatically when No. 8 Kennebunk went to top-ranked, two-time defending state champion Scarborough and won in PKs, meaning the winner of the Red Riots at Rams game would have homefield for the semifinals and an inside track to the regional final.

South Portland, ranked fifth in Western A, had to go to Gorham, which was seeded fourth. The teams’ last postseason meeting was in the 1988 quarterfinals (a 2-1 South Portland victory).

After a 24-hour delay due to rain, the Rams got the jump Thursday and had enough to hold on.

Gorham broke the scoring ice just 5 minutes, 32 seconds in when sophomore Connor Reagan, sporting a first-rate Mohawk hairdo, beat a Red Riots defender to the ball in the box and crossed it to senior Connor Bell, who one-timed a shot past South Portland junior goalkeeper Shawn Shannon for a quick 1-0 lead.

The Red Riots weren’t able to generate much offense to speak of in the first half. Their best opportunity came with 9:27 to go before halftime when sophomore Nem Kaurin launched a rocket from 30-yards out that went just high, skimming the top of the crossbar.

With 1:33 left in the half, the hosts doubled their lead, again courtesy Reagan. Off a corner kick (Gorham had a whopping 14-3 edge for the contest), Reagan sent the ball to junior Nate Bucknell, who headed it in to make it 2-0.

“It was a little surprising we didn’t have the intensity I thought we’d have,” said Hoy. “We waited for (Gorham) to attack. We made some adjustments at half that paid off.”

South Portland looked to get some offense going in the second half, but the Rams’ defense, anchored by senior backs Levi Lurvey and Seth Wing, didn’t give up any easy opportunities.

With 33:45 to play in regulation, Red Riots junior Akiba Davis’s cross was cleared at the last second. With 19:30 left, Davis got his head on a corner kick, but the ball was sent out of harm’s way.

Shannon then made two impressive saves to keep his team close, denying junior Drew Hopkins with a dive and Reagan point blank.

“Shawn played outstanding all year,” Hoy said. “I’m blessed to have three varsity goaltenders who would play on most varsity teams in the league. He came up big game after game.”

With 7:12 to go, the visitors got a break when a Gorham defender touched the ball with his hand in the box, giving South Portland a penalty kick. Kaurin did the honors and shot to his left into an open net while the Rams’ goalie went to his right and just like that, the Red Riots were right back in it, down 2-1.

South Portland had two looks at an equalizer.

First, with 4:45 to play, Kaurin’s free kick appeared ticketed for the foot of junior Caleb Elsemore, but the Gorham goalie got to the ball just in time. With 25.7 seconds to go, Kaurin was able to get a shot off, but he couldn’t get much on it and it was saved. Fittingly, as time wound down, Wing cleared away one final foray and the Rams (10-3-2) advanced with the 2-1 victory.

“Our philosophy all year has been short passes in the midfield and get up and attack and we couldn’t do it that tonight” Hoy said. “We tried to send it long. We didn’t have the intensity we needed in the first half. We were in the playoffs last year down 2-0 and came back and won. Down 2-0, you’re not out of it. We picked it up at halftime and clawed back into it, but it wasn’t enough.

“They have an outstanding defense. Levi’s an outstanding defender. Seth Wing’s a outstanding defender. It seemed like every time we got something going. Wing was there to blast it out. We just didn’t do what we’re capable of doing.”

While South Portland was disheartened with Thursday’s result, it’s hard to find anything but resounding positives about its season. While eight seniors will depart, the Red Riots are poised to be a force again in 2011.

“It’s my fourth year,” Hoy said. “The seniors were freshmen and played for me all the way through. They’re quality players and really good kids. Some of the seniors didn’t see as much time as they would have liked, but you wouldn’t know it. They played hard and kept a positive attitude. We’ll miss them, but fortunately, I return a chunk of core players. We’ll try to make a run next year too.”

Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at [email protected]

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